William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) follows three serviceman who meet while flying back to their hometown of Boone City after World War II. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is an older Army Sergeant who has difficulty adjusting to home life with his family and resuming his career as a banker. Air Force Captain Fred Dery (Dana Andrews) is younger, coming home to wartime marriage after a short courtship, trying to find a job, and dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is a Navy Officer nervous about reconnecting with his family and girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) after losing his hands and having to use prosthetic hooks in their place. All three men are interconnected in their efforts to readjust to civilian life.
Harold Russell was “discovered” by director William Wyler and playwright Robert Sherwood (who was hired to work with Wyler on concepts for the film) when they viewed the army training film Diary of a Sergeant. This film was meant to “offer encouragement to the 15,000 men who had lost hands or arms” (Gerber 77, 79). Russell was a bilateral hand amputee due to a training accident (80). The 22 minute film depicts Russell as a person who lost his hands on D-Day, eventually going from a self-pitying state to watching a film about a man using prosthetics and being inspired, learning how to use his own prosthetics and eventually reintegrating into society. The action on the screen is coupled with a narrator who tells the story (“Diary”). Russell, whose own experiences of dealing with disability and rehabilitation were similar, impressed Wyler and Sherwood and he was eventually cast in the film (Gerber 80).
When I watch The Best Years of Our Lives, I try to prepare myself for it. First of all, it’s a long film, running almost three hours. I want to make sure I can watch the entire thing in a single sitting. I don’t like to start and stop a film, as it takes me out of the moment. Sometimes, it’s just hard to get back “in” to the moment and I have to move on, reserving plans for another day. Beyond the “length” factor, I also have mixed emotions about what I am watching on the screen. I enjoy seeing Harold Russell playing the role of a character with a disability. I realize that Russell was not a professional actor. He was incredibly lucky and given a chance. The disability is not “created” with the assistance of special effects. At the same time, while I connect to some of the emotions that the character Homer Parrish expresses, I have to remind myself that it is all part of a narrative that plays on the stereotypes surrounding veterans with disabilities. On the one hand, Wyler exploits to the anxiety surrounding the returning veterans with disabilities, working on both the pity and fear that the audience has for the character. On the other hand, there is also an emphasis on the ability to overcome adversity through disability (Gerber 76). These ideas still exist within society and have been perpetuated in films throughout the years in one form or another. Sometimes, the process of watching films that continue to do this is exhausting. So, why do I do it?
During my time at The University of Toledo, I took a class entitled, “American Myth and Legacy of Vietnam.” I embarked on projects that examined the portrayal of Vietnam veterans in film, first on characters with physical disabilities and then looking at characters with (PTSD). During our final weeks of class, I was presenting my work and explaining why it mattered. After it was all said and done, a classmate chimed in and made the point, “But they’re just movies…” I don’t really remember the exchange (or if there was one, because my nerves were fried from presenting). However, I do remember being surprised with those words. I understand how we can enjoy films and watch them for fun, but I have a hard time thinking about them as “just movies.” They can influence the lives of people in so many ways, impacting societal perceptions, day-to-day interactions, and more. I think this is a major reason why I keep watching, even if it means multiple viewings. I keep learning something new.
– Jonathan Bartholomy, RAFF Chicago Planning Committee Member
Gerber, David. “’Heroes and Misfits: The Troubled Social Reintegration of Disabled Veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives.” Disabled Veterans in History. Ed. Gerber, David.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 96-114.
“Diary of a Sargeant, 1945.” YouTube, uploaded by US National Archives, 27 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp1E5smfSDI&t=7s
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